“There’s a saying in Chinese about money,” Mom tells me. “钱不是万能的, 可是没钱是万万不能. Do you understand?”
Dad is laughing at the drama they’ve rented, set in pre–Cultural Revolution China. Two scenes ago, the patriarch in the story was dying. One scene later, he died. I’m not sure when they started watching dramas from China. The picture quality is stunning—startlingly bright primary colors amid all the heads of black hair. It makes me wonder especially whether the look of the characters was re-created from posters that we’re all familiar with, the ones of rosy-cheeked young men and women wearing cloth jackets exposing only their hardiness and none of their sexuality. How is it that fabrications exist?
Mom says: “The Chinese wake up with money on their minds, yes. There’s a saying . . . well, I forget exactly what it is—but it has to do with how we wake up every day thinking of buying seven things: oil, salt, wood, rice, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea. What do you think of buying when you wake up?”
“Coffee, Metrocard, entrance fee for that night’s event.”
“What about lunch? Don’t you eat?”
Dad laughs again at the television drama. The oldest daughter in the family is threatening the village chief in his office with a sit-in if he doesn’t compensate her for some loss. The father has been dead for a few months now, and the show’s music and color palette are now even livelier.
(Just now I’d written: “The father has been for a few months now.”)
Mom says: “Yesterday we had a fright. We were going to call you, but then the fright turned into relief—yes, we spent four hours in the emergency room, but it all worked out and there was no need to call you just then. He needed to take his medication, that was all.”
I make fun of Dad for walking like an old man. At the same time I realize how good his posture has always been. I think of two photographs of him in his swimming trunks—one with him standing in front of a snowman, another sitting with his legs crossed. His back is ramrod straight in both, and his hair is black, his chest filled out. Tonight I am unnerved by something else: fuzz above his lip. I suppose he’s always shaved, and thus never gave me the time and pleasure to study his mustache, but the truth is that we are a relatively hairless family—the men have never dealt with facial hair and chest hair, and the women have never had to shave their legs—and so seeing his upper lip unshaved, or rather spotted with patches of white, is a shock, and my toes curl from the shock, the way one feels in a moment of vertigo. This toe-curling also occurs when I see that he’s taken out his dentures. I’m resisting these signs of age.
Dad pours himself a dose of liquid Tylenol. I say, “Cheers!” He doesn’t drink for a full minute, because he is laughing too hard.